Scrum consists of a straightforward process, half a bunch of roles and a few artifacts. Sounds simple enough, but according to an online poll 3 out of 4 projects that call themselves Scrum fail to implement even the simplest parts. To make matters worse, most of the mistakes are on the simple side of things. Is there a way to bootstrap the project? Might there be a sweet hard deal that we can use?
Scrum and Agile development has started to rock the world within IT in various ways. A simple, but powerful process that seems to deliver. Developers and customer alike are happy. What’s not to like about it? Still, there are signs of problems. Projects that claim to use Scrum do not reap the benefits, management looses patience with this new method and team members struggle to adapt an agile approach to their everyday work life. Why is this? And more importantly, what can we do about it?
The Therapy: Get off to a good start by directing the team with a careful set of good practices and a strict agreement that leaves little or no choice. The team can then, over a couple of iterations, gradually take command themselves.
Easy, but still so hard
Why then is Scrum so hard? Well, first of all it is fail-fast, meaning that any problems will be quickly apparent. There are no artifacts or process steps to hide behind. This is never easy. To this list we can add even more pitfalls that are just plain hard to deal with whatever method we are using.
Still, it does not explain why there seems to be so many simple mistakes with such a simple framework. One of the best examples is the failure to keep backlog that is prioritized and up to date.
– We’re doing Scrum, but we’re too busy to work on the product backlog!
That one has always short-circuited my brain. What can be more important than to decide what is important? This pattern of falling short and missing basic parts of Scrum even has a name – “ScrumButt”. If you look in the sentence above you see why.
Nokia created a test to make sure the projects are “Scrum enough”. These plain questions form a lithmus test that can be used to analyze most agile projects.
The Nokia Test
- Iterations – time boxed, less than 4 weeks.
- Software features – tested and working at the end of each iteration.
- Iteration must start before specification is complete.
Scrum (in Nokia’s opinion)?
- You know who the product owner is.
- There is a product backlog prioritized by business value.
- The product backlog has estimates created by the team.
- The team generates burndown charts and knows their velocity.
- No project managers (or anyone else) disrupting the work of the team.
The questions seem to be on the easy side. It turns out that this might not be the case.
One online poll, Nokia Test by Practice , about the ability to achieve the Nokia Test level gave some interesting answers. In essence, only one out of four give themselves a full mark. Half of the groups report that management interferes, not directs but interferes.
Informal queries by Jeff Sutherland among his audiences around the world give an even worse number – something like 1 out of 10 pass the Nokia Test. Hand on your heart: Does your project live up to this?
A survey by VersionOne tries to dig deeper into the current state of the Agile affairs. Under the headline “Top barriers to adopting Agile” we read the top four answers:
- Organisational culture, 45%
- General resistance to change, 44%
- Lack of people with experience, 42%
- Lack of management support, 32%
Take a long look at these barriers. No technical stuff. Nothing specific to agile. Just people.
What do we know?
Learn to walk before you run. Greek Proverb.
We could be a bit closer to today’s reality than these ancient words of wisdom. The Situational Leadership offers an approach to management that has been around since the 60’s. These theories say that there is no single leadership style that is optimal for all people in every situation. Situational leadership talks about four different leadership styles that need to be matched with the follower. Basically, when leading someone who is passionate, but have no experience, you should adapt and give clear directives. As the follower evolves his or her ability to execute, so should the leader using less directives and more encouragement. In the end the follower is able to perform with only a stated goal and little or no directives.
If this holds true for people, could it not be true for teams as well?
So we have problems making Scrum and Agile efforts to run. What is the conclusion? Could it be that we adapt our leadership style to the group? Make them walk before running?
This is counter intuitive, at least to me: To go agile, we first need to control. We should not let our teams and managements start off without some kind of directives. Give them a good deal, some practices that make Scrum work. Otherwise, we are just repeating the same old mistakes as the next-door agile project. Set up an agreement with both management and team so that they can evolve and experience Scrum for real. Just reading a book (or article) or listening to some good speaker alone does not help you out there in real life. You have to experience it.
Shocking as it may feel: We need to exercise some control over the Scrum project start so that it can evolve and self organize! But, and this is a big but, this has to be done with compassion and genuine involvement, otherwise we stand the risk of destroying what we are trying to build.
So what can we do? We need to work the team, management and often the whole organization.
The Team Recipe
So how do we get started? Here’s a recipe for the team as it used at MySpace:
- Scrum training session for everyone
- Sprint 1 week long
- Definition of Done:
- Feature Complete
- Code Complete
- No known defects
- Approved by the Product Owner
- Production Ready
- Story Points
- Physical Task Board
- All-in-one Sprint planning meeting.
- No Multi-tasking, work in priority order.
Scott Downey, Agile Coach at MySpace
The idea of this recipe is to set a good practice right from the start. Instead of debating the details on how to work in an agile way, we can focus on getting going.
Everyone has to have a common Scrum understanding to start from, hence the training session. One-week iteration sounds really tight for any reasonably sized projects. The thinking behind this is to get as quick iterations as possible – the faster that the group gets going the better. Short sprints help in this aspect. We learn faster with more turnarounds.
This in turn affects the meetings where MySpace has elected to combine them all, except the morning meeting, into one single occasion. The time is just too short to in a weekly sprint.
MySpace’s definition of done is a good and basic list. However, as a programmer I lack for instance continuous integration, pair programming and so on. These are not mandatory to have, but I see them as enablers for Scrum and supporting your agile initiative.
The next two on the list – Story Points and Physical Task Board – are really effective. If you haven’t tried them out then please do. They work. Finally we have something that is a no-brainer to me even though I have great problems avoiding it, “No Multi-tasking, work in priority order”. Context-switching is expensive, just avoid it. The priorities are in order, you just have to follow them. In the Reference box you find a link to Scott Downey’s description of their therapy.
When the team matures, they should evolve and handle things more on their own and no longer need directives. At MySpace the group can “prove” that they are ready for prime time by reaching the following goals.
The Team Exit
- Hyper-Productive (>240%)
- Three successful Sprints consecutively
- Good business reason to change the rule
So how does this work out? At MySpace all groups achieved exit. All, but one, improved after that. One group even achieved a whopping 1,650% improvement after just four months (16 sprints). At Jayway one of the teams used such a bootstrap technique, primarily on the technical side, and reached 800% after 3 months.
The second part of this blog can be found here: Scrum Shock Therapy, Part 2 where I will look into how to handle management and organisation with some recipes.
/Björn Granvik, Jayway